Press Release

IACHR refers case on Trinidad and Tobago to the Inter-American Court

July 12, 2021

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Washington, D.C. - On June 29, 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed the case of Reshi Bissoon and Foster Serrette regarding Trinidad and Tobago before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The case refers to the international responsibility of the State for the imposition of the mandatory death penalty against Reshi Bissoon and Foster Serrette.

Mr. Bissoon was arrested on December 1, 1995, and charged with the murder of Leslie-Ann Ramsey, while Mr. Serrette was arrested on October 13, 1998, for the murders of his wife, Florence Serrette, and his son, Shanie Serrette. Mr. Bissoon and Mr. Serrette were sentenced to mandatory death by the High Court of Justice of Trinidad and Tobago on October 29, 1999 and May 21, 2001, respectively. Both convictions were affirmed by the Court of Appeal. Further appeals to the Board of the Privy Council were dismissed.

According to the information provided by the petitioners, not contested by the State, on January 12, 2005, state authorities confirmed in writing that the Government of Trinidad and Tobago had accepted the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council decision in Charles Matthew, and would commute the sentences of those affected, which included Reshi Bissoon and Foster Serrette. However, local media reported in June 2005 indicating that the Advisory Committee on the Power of Pardon were scheduled to consider the death row inmates' case, which was followed by a statement by the Attorney General to the House of Representatives on June 6, 2005, outlining his intention to execute all those on death row.

A constitutional motion was filed on June 13, 2005, for a declaration that execution would be unlawful. A conservatory order was granted by the Port of Spain High Court imposing temporary stays on execution. The constitutional motion was granted and on August 15, 2008, the sentences of the victims were commuted to life imprisonment.

In its Report on the Merits, the Inter-American Commission recalled that, according to the longstanding jurisprudence of the IACHR and the Inter-American Court, the mandatory death penalty, that is, the imposition of the death penalty upon conviction for a crime, without an opportunity for presenting and considering mitigating circumstances in the sentencing process, contravenes the American Convention on Human Rights (the "American Convention") and the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man ("the American Declaration").  

In the Case of Hilaire, Constantine and Benjamin et al. v. Trinidad and Tobago, the Inter-American Court found that the Offences Against the Person Act of 1925 prevents the judge from considering the basic circumstances in establishing the degree of culpability and individualizing the sentence since it compels the indiscriminate imposition of the same punishment for conduct that can be vastly different. In the instant case, the mandatory death penalty was applied to Bissoon and Serrette based solely upon the category of crime for which they were convicted, so denying an individualized sentencing and the opportunity to present mitigating evidence.

The IACHR further noted that in the case of Bissoon there was a pre-trial delay of nearly three years from the date of his arrest in December 1995, to his trial in October 1998. Similarly, for Mr. Serrette, there was a pre-trial delay of more than two years from the date of his arrest in October 1998, to his trial of May 2001. The Commission found in the instant case that the delay is prima facie unreasonable and noticed that the State failed to provide any proper justification for the delay in bringing the victims to trial.

Further, according to the binding jurisprudence that existed at the time, the IACHR concluded that Bissoon and Serrette's death sentence should have been commuted after the Roodal's decision was adopted on November 20, 2003, or, at least, after they had served five years on death row. Therefore, the Commission concluded that Trinidad and Tobago thus failed to guarantee that the victims could effectively exercise their right to have their death sentence commuted, so it also constituted a violation to the victims' rights to due process and judicial protection.

The Commission noted that, despite the Court of Appeal's recognition of the misdirection of the trial judge in Mr. Bissoon's trial, there was no further action to remedy or rectify the possible detrimental impact that such deficiencies may have caused. It also noted that the State did not contravene Mr. Serrette's allegations regarding its failure to comply with the obligation to provide adequate legal representation, after he was dissatisfied with the ineffective legal assistance provided by the assigned public defender.

Based on these considerations, the Commission found that Trinidad and Tobago is responsible for the violation of Articles 7.5, 8.1 and 25.1 of the American Convention, in relation to its obligations established in Articles 1.1 and 2. In addition to Messrs. Bissoon and Serrette's deprivation of liberty on death row for nearly nine and seven years respectively, as well as the inhumane prison conditions, constituted humane treatment and therefore violated Articles XXV (protection from arbitrary arrest) and XXVI (due process of law) of the American Declaration. Regarding to the denial of adequate medical care, given the inhumane conditions found and the lack of contradictory information, Trinidad and Tobago also violated Article XI (health and wellbeing) of the Declaration. Also, since the imposition of the mandatory death penalty continued after the entry into force of the Convention's denunciation, the State has also violated Articles I (life), XVIII (fair trial) and XXVI (due process of law) of the American Declaration.

In its Merits Report, the Commission recommended that the State:

  1. Grant Reshi Bissoon and Foster Serrette effective relief, including the review of their trials and sentences in accordance with the guarantees of fair trial and due process set forth in Articles XVIII, and XXVI of the American Declaration, and the payment of pecuniary compensation.
  2. Review its laws, procedures, and practices to ensure that persons accused of capital crimes are tried and, if convicted, sentenced in accordance with the rights established in the American Declaration, including Articles I, XI, XVIII, XXV and XXVI thereof.
  3. Ensure that the conditions of detention of the Frederick Street Prison in Port of Spain are compatible with international human rights standards in accordance with the right of protection against cruel, infamous or unusual punishment.
  4. Given the violations of the American Declaration and the American Convention, the Inter-American Commission also recommends to Trinidad and Tobago that it abolishes the death penalty, including the mandatory death penalty.

The IACHR is a principal and autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), whose mandate derives from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote the observance and defense of human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The IACHR is composed of seven independent members who are elected by the OAS General Assembly in their personal capacity, and do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 173/21

3:32 PM